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Friday Packers Musings: In OTAs, a surprising left tackle has entered the first-team mix

In David Bakhtiari’s absence, the Packers have a new left tackle earning first-team reps, but probably not the one you expected.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the Green Bay Packers’ organized team activities this week, the talk of the town was just as much about who was not in attendance as who was.

Aaron Rodgers was certainly a popular story topic this past week, but so too was Jordan Love, taking his first reps as the first-team quarterback at this juncture.

This week’s musings discuss the need for patience and limited overreaction when it comes to Love in his possible first season as a starter, but also dive into one of his newest receiving targets and protectors up front. That surprise name on the depth chart leads off today’s article.

A new prospective left tackle debuts along the offensive line

Over the past couple of seasons, the Packers have been creative in terms of their depth at offensive tackle. In a pinch, Green Bay has swung guards Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner to tackle and Turner looks to remain the team’s starting right tackle in 2021. Each of those players filled in for Rick Wagner and David Bakhtiari last season, and Jenkins could be a candidate to make spot starts on the left side if Bakhtiari misses the first few weeks of the season (though his recovery is looking strong). Still, the Packers are the lookout for prospective reserves at tackle, and with Jenkins not present at an OTA practice open to the media this week, there was an opportunity for a young player to impress.

After spending two seasons with the team, Yosh Nijman was a logical candidate to earn additional snaps in that position. Second-year guard Jon Runyan, a college tackle, also carried some potential to move outside if needed, much like rookies Royce Newman and Cole Van Lanen. But in the first few days of camp, there has been a new name lining up at left tackle: Ben Braden. The 27-year old played sparingly for the Packers last season, mostly on special teams, after two years with the New York Jets but has a real opportunity to win a starting spot at guard or tackle, according to Offensive Line Coach Adam Stenavich. Braden has more than enough size to line up at tackle at 6-foot-6 and 329 pounds, but there has not been much pro tape to make much of an assessment on the Michigan product.

Braden’s ascension has come somewhat out of left field after just four offensive snaps last season, but clearly he has the Packers’ attention even after three new draft picks along the line, including promising Josh Myers at first-team center. While it is certainly early in camp, the development of Braden is a big step in the team’s quest to build its tackle depth but raises some questions about the long-term outlook for Nijman.

If Jordan Love starts next season, the Packers’ faithful must show patience

Tuesday may indeed be a crossroads for the Packers and Aaron Rodgers as their mandatory minicamp kicks off, and likely will be a strong indicator, one way or the other, if the All-Pro will don a green and gold uniform next year. In Rodgers’ absence thus far, Love has gained plenty of much-needed reps in practice and could very well be the starter come fall. However, it is important to stress patience for the former first-round pick for several reasons, even if the early returns are not promising.

Of course, Love did not get to participate in preseason action last year and has not played a single professional snap to this point. Expectations must be tempered for that very reason alone. But the stress of following a legend should also be considered. Although Rodgers handled it fairly well himself in ultimately replacing Brett Favre, it remains a daunting task.

Speaking of Rodgers, many were ready to write him off after two years of preseason showings. Brian Brohm was drafted in the second round, signaling the Packers were also not sold on the California quarterback’s development. Even in year three when having to fill in for Favre in a regular season game, Cris Collinsworth uttered the words “you’re not going to win a whole lot with Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback.” Imagine if the early backup struggles of Rodgers had led the team to move in a different direction after a full three seasons with the team, or even after his fourth year as a 6-10 starter.

Surely, signs of stardom can be displayed early in quarterbacks’ careers and Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes are examples of this. For others, it simply takes longer. With Love, who has gained some recent hype regarding some Mahomes-like intangibles and throwing angles, it is important to remember he will be a glorified rookie next year. He has the fertile soil to succeed with one year in the system and all of the meaningful reps right now (and perhaps going forward), but expect plenty of hiccups throughout the chaos of his first season and be ready to throw him a mulligan.

If Amari Rodgers cloned Randall Cobb’s first season, how much would that help Green Bay?

Yesterday, Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett provided some early praise for the Packers’ third-round wide receiver and suggested he will play a role this upcoming season as expected.

But what are those “cool things” Hackett speaks of? When Rodgers was drafted, many comparisons were made to Randall Cobb, particularly with the rookie’s connections to the former Packer. In a number of ways, that comparison could go hand-in-hand with how Rodgers is utilized as a rookie.

Cobb’s most significant impact in his first season was on special teams as a returner. A 11.3-yard punt return average and 27.7-yard kick return average, along with a pair of touchdowns, made for a highlight season in the special teams realm. If Rodgers can come anywhere near those numbers in his first season, the Packers will immediately add an element to the team that has been missing. Last season, Green Bay averaged a meager 4.4 and 18.9 yards per punt and kick return, respectively, and those numbers were very similar to the 2019 season. In fact, in the past 10 years, only Micah Hyde’s 2013 returning season has come anywhere near Cobb’s production (12.3 and 24.1). If only a factor on special teams, Rodgers would immediately bolster an area of weakness if his return yardage matches Cobb’s rookie performance.

The versatility of Cobb on offense was seen to an extent as a rookie, lining up in the slot and at times in the backfield. Perhaps Cobb’s best role, therefore, was as a decoy and that is where Rodgers could factor into the offense with a more advanced role in pre-snap motion. Overall, Cobb’s offensive numbers did not jump off the table - 25 catches for 375 yards and a touchdown receiving and two carries for five yards as a rusher - but his presence in the slot was a complement to veterans Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Donald Driver. For a 2021 Packers offense looking for slot help to complement their own outside receiving corps, Rodgers could help make the aerial attack that much more dangerous if the other Rodgers returns. However, Cobb’s rookie stat line supports the notion that it is tough for rookie receivers, even highly-versatile ones, to make a major impact in year one and expectations for Rodgers should remain reasonable.

In summary, if Amari Rodgers was to have a duplicate rookie season to that of Randall Cobb, it would probably be viewed as a major success even if the offensive numbers were minimal compared to his contributions on special teams.